On a snowy day in the woods of present day Austria in AD 180, Maximus rallied his troops before the final battle and shouted, ”What we do in life, echoes in eternity!” The battle ensued and Maximus’ men came out triumphant. This happened in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator from 2000. Meanwhile, nineteen years later, Martin Scorsese closes the second decade of this century with a much gloomier statement. One could narrow it down to, ”What we do in life is final.”
With a career spanning over 50 years, Scorsese has grown into a filmmaker whose movies tend to define specific time periods and speak for entire generations. Although set in different times and places, movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull became the epitome of the societal turmoil of the 70s and 80s, while Goodfellas and The Departed redefined the cinema of the 90s and mid 2000s by specifically reformulating the genre of gangster films and thrillers, giving audiences a reason to keep believing in a type of filmmaking that seemed on the verge of destruction on behalf of the Hollywood machine. If there was a cinematic mind who could bring us an epic the likes of which we haven’t seen since The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America and still find a way to keep audiences engaged, it’s Martin Scorsese.
Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses which served as a memoir for union teamster turned mafia hitman Frank Sheeran, The Irishman was always meant to be made into a full-scale epic as its story spanned almost half a century and covered major historical milestones such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Kennedy assassination, Italian-American Civil Rights League movement, the McClellan hearings and finally, Jimmy Hoffa’s infamous disappearance in 1975. And as monumental and grand the scale of this project turned out to be, Scorsese’s latest vehicle is an extremely personal piece of work, specifically in the way it goes about tackling the theme of mortality, a theme that is used to set the film apart from the director’s other ventures into the genre such as Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino.
”He couldn’t finish [explaining the character of Frank Sheeran]. He was too emotionally involved,” said Scorsese in a recent panel talk at the AFI Fest 2019, when retelling the story of how De Niro first approached him with the idea for a new collaborative project. Scorsese continued, ”That’s when I realized… maybe this is where we have to go. Maybe this gives us the opportunity to make another picture not in the same vein. Maybe we could find depth in this.” Finally, the director concluded this explanation with a key sentence, ”What is it? It turns out it’s us… life.”
Life goes by fast. In Hollywood especially. Life is also fragile. Scorsese would know best. This is the same man who almost went mad after New York, New York turned out to be the flop of the year in 1977, who was rumored to have threatened a producer with a gun when Taxi Driver had been initially X-rated, who was targeted by the Catholic Church and other religious groups after the release of the highly controversial Last Temptation of Christ, who abused drugs to the point he ended up in a hospital before De Niro gave him a book that saved his life and inspired him to make one of the great masterpieces of modern cinema, Raging Bull.
At 77 years of age and with almost 40 directorial efforts behind his belt including feature films and documentaries, The Irishman is not just another number in the Italian-American director’s vast filmography. This is a chapter, a chapter that Scorsese along with his long-time friends, friends from way back, from teenage years spent in Little Italy and Queens, including De Niro, Pesci, Pacino, Keitel and others, decided to write together. A last ride? Perhaps not. Certainly it is a collaboration that when looked at from the perspective of these aging stars takes on a whole new form.
In The Irishman, we witness the rise of a WWII veteran from truck driver to mafia hitman and finally, to personal friend and bodyguard of Jimmy Hoffa. We witness America change, we witness a nation in turmoil go through happy times and times of bloodshed, widespread distrust and panic.
But this passage of time is not as colorful and cool as the one we experience in Goodfellas, when we get to hang out with Henry Hill and the gang, and see them grow in rank, rob banks, have romances and eventually, from to time, get to kill somebody. It is also not as glamorous and dynamic as the passage of time seen in Casino, when it seems like there is no end to Ace Rothstein’s success in the city of dreams, Las Vegas. While yes, in both films our protagonists meet their end in a rather sobering fashion, with Hill getting to spend the rest of his life in some remote part of the country under the witness protection program, and Ace having most of his estate taken away by the authorities, The Irishman refuses to fall into the rise-and-fall scenario throughout its entire lengthy run-time.
The rise of I spoke of earlier in this paragraph is a slow and quite dreadful one. Our protagonist, Frank Sheeran, is a strong-arm, a heavy-set man with blue eyes, wide shoulders and an imposing figure. He’s strong enough to carry hindquarters and change tires. The one feature that makes him stand out in mobster Russell Bufalino’s eyes (Joe Pesci is back, baby! And better than ever) is his obedience to orders. When you tell Frank what to do, you can bet your ass he’s going to see it through. He’s a man who goes through the motions and despite stating in his introduction as an elderly man in a wheelchair looking back on his life, ”I was one of a thousand working stiffs. Until I wasn’t no more,” Frank finds himself victim of a system, a system that is much larger and much more powerful than a single man. Once he is sucked into the underworld of Philadelphia and starts carrying out the orders on behalf of Bufalino and Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel back in a Scorsese movie for the first time since 1988), Frank witnesses history. He claims he delivered weapons for the CIA to be used in the Bay of Pigs. Moreover, in the book, the retired hitman hints he might have been implicated in delivering the rifles that would later on be used to assassinate JFK. History literally flashes by Frank. And yet… and yet Frank is unaware of it. De Niro’s Sheeran stays a working stiff. He completes his tasks and deals with the world in an extremely dissociative way. When Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino at his best in years) asks him, ”Would you like to be a part of this history?” Sheeran says in a dry, almost robotic manner, ”Yes… sir. I would.” And while the two become close friends, with Frank stating numerous times that Hoffa was the greatest man he ever knew, the Irishman is unable to truly engage with the world around him. The only familiar corners for him are mob hang-outs and union picket lines.
Critics and fans have pointed out the absence of a truly meaningful female character. However, I cannot help but find, similarly to Scorsese, the character of Frank’s daughter, Peggy, as the key to the puzzle. Peggy has very few lines throughout the entirety of the film, but her silence speaks volumes of how her father goes about living his life. She watches as the heavy-set man quietly exits the house at night to carry out a hit. She watches as her father shoves a gun into his pocket before going on a trip. She watches the man sitting across the table from her, reading the morning newspaper with the headlines of a grizzly murder he most likely committed. He offers no answers. But she’s figured him out. And she pities him. And as the years go by, the little girl turns into a teenager and eventually into an adult woman with a family, but her silence remains and acts as a reminder to Frank of what this life he’s so proudly gone through, from veteran to truck driver to bodyguard and even union boss, had to offer and what he’s missed out on.
Unlike Sheeran, Jimmy Hoffa was a man with principles who fought for survival with any means necessary. He was as popular as Elvis and as opposed as a Communist. He was a folk hero and a public enemy. He had life-long friends and sworn opponents like Robert F. Kennedy. He was a fanatic when it came to being on time and staying sober. He was proud and ultimately, this pride cost him his life.
In The Irishman, Hoffa is the ultimate embodiment of a man coming to terms with his own mortality. After doing four years of prison time and turning his back on the gangsters that helped him grow in power as president of the union for 15 years, Hoffa’s on his own. His extravagant temper filled with wild outbursts and blunt accusations soon sees him on the receiving end of serious threats. ”What don’t you people understand?” says Hoffa upon a confrontation with Pesci’s Bufalino. ”It’s not about money. This is my union.” As viewers, we witness Hoffa slowly but surely sink with the ship he so lovingly protected and fought for over the years. The man whose word used to be worth more than the president’s is not on a pedestal anymore. He’s become touchable. And instead of listening to Sheeran’s advice to step down and enjoy what his career brought him, Hoffa’s fighting spirit persists. Because that’s all he’s got. In the face of his own mortality, his life hanging on a very thin thread, Hoffa chooses to stay true to himself, to his legacy and reputation, unaware of the fact that the people out there to hurt him have no respect for such things. ”They wouldn’t dare,” he says.
The much talked about de-aging VFX technology contributes to the theme of mortality. Instead of looking at it from a purely technical standpoint, I encourage everyone to see past the hiccups and imperfections and incorporate them as part of the grand scheme of things. We see some of cinema’s greatest actors go through a process meant to rejuvenate them and help give the film a structured sense of narrative rather than have different, younger actors play the same parts and then as the story progresses, switch them with their older counterparts.
One cannot help but think about the inevitability of mortality as we see De Niro play what is supposed to be a twenty-year old soldier with the physique of a seventy-six year-old man, who can hardly lift up a heavy rifle. When forty-year old Hoffa is supposed to get up and storm out of a room in a frenzy, we see Pacino struggle to maintain his balance while walking away in a pair of slippers. It’s imperfect. But it fits. And it underlines the nature of these characters, and the people behind them.
As a fan, I see my idols have a hard time in doing what once came natural to them. I see De Niro, who used to transform his body for the sake of the art form, struggle with walking at a faster pace. I see Pesci, whom I remember from his hilarious stunts in Home Alone and his larger-than-life presence in films like Goodfellas and Casino, walk down a set of stairs with a clearly pained expression on his face. Even with the most sophisticated technology… You cannot stop the machine. You cannot stop life. As Bufalino tells Frank, when giving him one final yet life-altering order, ”It’s what it is.”
Was this Scorsese’s swan song? Certainly not (as he’s already preparing for Killers of the Flower Moon, set for filming in 2020). However, The Irishman is undoubtedly a testament to the careers of some of cinema’s finest artists. It is an epic confrontation with the past and a final stand-off with what is to come. Whatever that may be.